Racism is Real!

In preparation for Thanksgiving my wife has decorated our house beautifully.  If you step into the living room and look at the mantle over the fireplace, four elegant figurines peer out from the fall foliage.  On the left are the classic looking pilgrim couple.  On the right are an equally idealized Native American (First Nation) couple.  They remind us that the first Thanksgiving was a multi-ethnic event.

Beyond that glowing reality lies a disturbing reality.  Recently at the Council of Bishops meeting we engaged in a continuing act of Repentance for the mistreatment and, at times, slaughter of Native Americans.  (I invite the reader to check out my blog on November 7th entitled “Acts of Repentance Signs of Hope.”)  Racism against Native Americans by an Anglo dominated culture is real.

Today as we awake following the non-indictment of a police officer for the shooting of a young African-American male in Ferguson, Missouri, we are reminded again that racism is real.  Regardless of your perspective on the Grand Jury’s action in Missouri, demonstrations coupled with anger and mistrust point us back to the irrefutable raw wound of racial injustice, profiling and neglect.  At General Conference in 2012, the United Methodist Church passed roughly 14 separate resolutions directly or indirectly about combating racism.  Ferguson, Missouri and its aftermath reminds us that this is an issue none of us can walk away from if we wish to claim an identity as Christ followers.

Galatians 3:28 states the biblical case with unwavering clarity.  “There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).  The great commission of the risen Savior and Lord Jesus Christ remarkably gives the command:  “Jesus came near and spoke to them, ‘I’ve received all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age’” (Matthew 28:18-20).  The word translated “nations” in verse 19 is rendered “ethne” in the Greek.  It does not mean a nation-state as we are apt to assume but rather means a people group.  It is the root of our word “ethnic.”  Jesus is commanding us to reach all ethnic groups, all people groups.

The implication is compelling.  Racism must be confessed, especially the subtle racism of white privilege.  (Resolution 3376 adopted by the 2012 General Conference, p. 455 The Book of Resolutions of the United Methodist Church, 2012 is worth prayerful reflection by all, especially those who like me come from an Anglo-American heritage.)  Confession needs to lead us into action to eradicate this blight on human society.

Dr. Sylvester Key, Pastor of McMillan United Methodist Church in Fort Worth and an African-American as well as a U. S. Army veteran, wrote the following letter, which I in part and with permission quote.

 “When the verdict was read in Ferguson as it relates to the shooting of Michael Brown the first thing I did was send a message to my three sons urging them to comply with law enforcement officers.

 I grew up during the height of racial segregation; that is to say, I was bused to an all-black school, could only go to the stores in our neighborhood because black boys were not allowed in Homestead stores. We were perceived as thieves and always were looking for something to steal.

 I have been stopped, detained, forced to get out of the car and put your head against the rear tire on the vehicle. Handcuffed and had a gun pulled on me a time or two.

 I have been stopped in Texas, Florida, Virginia and New Mexico while driving to my next military assignment. I have been called “Boy”, “Black Animal”, “Coon” and yes the “N” word. Hearing those words angered me but it also gave me the determination to make something out of my life.…

 We must not riot and burn the communities we live in. We must not look at people who are not black as the enemy. What we must do is work harder, vote, demand that our children receive a quality education and get back in the church. The church was the only place we had any authority, where we could speak our mind and the place where we took ownership.

 I fought in a war that was to stop the threat of communism in VietNam but we were losing the war for racial equality in America. …” (Dr. Sylvester Key, Sr.)

Pastor Key’s prophetic words, linked with our best resolutions and highest desires, call us to a higher standard of living, a biblical standard; a standard that reflects Christ’s presence in our midst.  Racism is real.  Let us confess and commit to reach out and build a better world in the name of our Lord.  This is in very truth the mission the Lord has given us – “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

When you pause to pray over Thanksgiving dinner, I ask you to pray for those in Ferguson, both the demonstrators and the police, and for all of us as a people that we might yet more deeply walk in the way of Christ.  May we live the Apostle Paul’s words to the church at Galatia.  “There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

Neural Consequences of Religious Belief on Self-Referential Processing

The title is not a mistake.  Actually it is the title of an article that John Ortberg references in his marvelous book Soul Keeping: Caring for the Most Important Part of You.  Amazingly enough Ortberg is referencing a study done in China which gives “real neurological evidence for the power of spiritual reflection to make us aware of our sin.”  He continues, “Christians actually use a different part of their brain to self-evaluate than non-Christians” (Taken from Soul Keeping by John Ortberg, p. 72).  He goes on to note that “prayer, meditation, and confession actually have the power to rewire the brain in a way that can make us less self-referential and more aware of how God sees us” (p. 73).

All that is a fancy way of saying that confession is really good for the soul; it is good for us in the fullness of our personhood!  As a leader, one of the refrains I go by is that “the first task of a leader is to define reality and the last task of a leader is to say thank you.”  (I think the quote is original to Peter Drucker but am not sure.  This may be a partially correct paraphrase but it is none-the-less profoundly good advice.)  Confession calls me to face the reality of who and whose I am.  It also lifts me to be a newer, better, holier way of being.  Something like this only more was behind the original Methodist emphasis of moving on to perfection.  Ortberg reminds me of an old prayer that goes:  “God, help me to be the man my dog thinks I am” (p. 78).

In a memorable sermon at the Council of Bishops meeting recently held in Oklahoma City, Bishop Young Jin Cho (Virginia Conference) quoted a Methodist preacher from the Civil War.  In the midst of that great conflagration, E. M. Bounds wrote: “We are continually striving to create new methods, plans, and organizations to advance the church.  We are ever working to provide and stimulate growth and efficiency for the gospel…  The church is looking for better methods; God is looking for better men and women…  What the church needs today is not more or better machinery, not new organizations or more novel methods.  The church needs men and women whom the Holy Spirit can use – persons of prayer, persons mighty in prayer.  The Holy Spirit does not flow through methods, but through persons.  The Spirit does not come on machinery, but on persons.  The Spirit does not anoint plans, but persons – persons of prayer”  (Quotation from E. M. Bounds’ book, The Power through Prayer).

I want to quibble, seriously quibble, with Bounds.  I think the Holy Spirit can and does flow through methods, plans and systems as well as persons.  Nonetheless, the point is well taken.  God is looking for transformed persons.  Holy transformation begins with each of us individually tending to our spiritual health in a way that is biblically faithful and leads us out beyond ourselves into the will and way of God.  (I think it was the great Baptist leader George Truitt who said that “success was knowing the will of God for your life and being at the center of it.”)

The secularist in me goes back again and again to Robert Quinn’s book on business leadership – Deep Change.  Quinn insists that we must begin by changing ourselves.  My Christian twist on Quinn’s writing is that we must begin by opening ourselves to the changing power and presence of the Sovereign Lord who encounters us through the Holy Spirit.  The Apostle Paul put it this way: “So, brothers and sisters, because of God’s mercies, I encourage you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice that is holy and pleasing to God. This is your appropriate priestly service.  Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is—what is good and pleasing and mature” (Romans 12:1-2).

This crucial meeting with the Holy Spirit begins in quiet, in praise and confession.  There really are “neural consequences of religious beliefs in self-referential processing!”  This is truly one of the great functions of worship and yet simultaneously is not limited to a church worship service.

Augustine put it well when he said, “Our hearts are restless, O Lord, until they find there rest in thee.”

“Take time to be holy, speak oft with thy Lord;
abide in him always, and feed on his word.
Make friends of God’s children, help those who are weak,
forgetting in nothing his blessing to seek.”

(“Take Time to Be Holy,” Hymn No. 395, verse 1, The United Methodist Hymnal)

Reporting From the Mission Field

There a many great avenues of ministry taking place in the Central Texas Conference and around the larger church. One of them lies in new church development. It is important to remember that every church was at one point in its life a new church.

Recently I met with our New Church Start District. The diversity was astonishing! There were eight developments that are a part of our New Church Start District. One is Korean; another is predominantly African American; and a third is reaching out to a predominantly Hispanic mission field. Two are extensions of parenting church situations. Two others are proposed “mergers” that would result in radically new and different churches.

Taken as a whole, there are a variety of experiments going on that reach deep into unconverted, unchurched and untapped mission fields. The very nature of the work is exploratory. It is also exciting with the connotations of a roller-coaster ride. The Holy Spirit is wildly at work in ways we only dimly understand. It is our call to be open – faithfully and courageously obedient to the Spirit’s claim upon us.

In another setting, I learned of some of the initial fruit of our strong emphasis in upgrading campus ministry and specifically Wesley Foundations. This ministry takes time to develop and mature, but it is making a tangible difference in the life of the Conference. Rev. Joseph Nader, CTC Coordinator of Campus Ministries, reports that we now have:

  • “2 students serving at Arborlawn UMC in the youth group.
  • 4 students serving at FUMC Mansfield in the youth group.
  • 1 student serving at Richland Hills UMC in the children’s ministry.
  • 2 students serving at the UTA Wesley (1 of them a repeat…also serving at Mansfield).”

He concludes, “Really [we have] a total of 8 students serving in a ministry designed to help them discern a call, and then equip them for moving forward in ministry. Additionally it is worth noting that Rev. Megan Davidson who was Director of the Wesley Foundation at TCU is moving on to be Chaplain at Southwestern University. Rev. Melissa Turkett is the new (as of Annual Conference) Wesley Foundation Director at Baylor University. Melissa is a graduate of the Wesley Foundation of UTA. In her last year at Perkins School of Theology, Melissa served her internship at the UTA Wesley Foundation.”

On a very different subject, I had the privilege of attending the Board meeting for Texas Wesleyan University (TWU) last week. TWU is moving forward in a number of impressive ways. We are looking forward to moving the Conference offices to TWU. It was reported at the Board meeting that the new Conference Center building should be completed this coming summer.

As we move towards Thanksgiving, I hope that we all will remember to give thanks by offering out of our bounty to those desperately in need. Here in the Central Texas Conference I especially want to remind us of our traditional “Thanksliving Offering.”

The Conference news notes that: “The 2014 Thanksliving Offering, generally received in the month of November, will go to energize and equip local church ministries with persons experiencing food insecurity in their communities. The Thanksliving Special Day Offering (Remittance Fund #3968) can be sent to the CTC Service Center online or by mailing a check.”

The Holy Spirit is moving in our midst, and we are blessed to be a part of a great work of the Lord. In countless numbers of ways, some large and impressive others small and unnoticed, the Kingdom of God is being constructed through a multitude of risk-taking acts of faithfulness. We truly have reason to rejoice and be thankful!

BEHIND THE SCENES

After the talk of schism and arguments over same gender issues settles, there is an emerging consensus over the importance of building vital congregations.  This great consensus is built on the foundation of commitment to the stated mission of The United Methodist Church — “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  I believe there is a growing recognition that if our threatened unity as a church is to hold, it will do so around this great theme of vital congregations that make disciples of Christ.

Such a great theme blossoms naturally from the fertile soil of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20) of the risen Christ to make disciples.  It is nurtured in conversion events like Acts 2 and the Pentecost experience, the road to Damascus of the Apostle Paul, and the dramatic transformation of Rome from a place dedicated to stomping out Christianity to the center of a new emerging Christian faith. The current denominational emphasis on building vital congregations is a faithful attempt to re-appropriate the center of our faith.

Behind the scenes of the vital congregation emphasis lies an only partially recognized need to rediscover evangelism and witnessing.  Missionary Bishop Lesslie Newbigin’s famous admonition of witnessing and faith sharing echoes in the background.  “Words without deeds are empty.  And deeds without words are dumb.”

Lost in the noise of the 2012 General Conference was a thin publication by Abingdon Press written by Dr. George Hunrecv contagious meth mvmtter, III.  The Recovery of a Contagious Methodist Movement looks at the capacity of the Call to Action to build vital congregations, to move beyond institutionalism to the recovery of a vital movement of faith consistent with the original Wesleyan vision.  Hunter notes “the contagion of culturally relevant Christianity and emotionally relevant Christianity are experienced fairly directly” (p. 41). This involves a direct connection between conversations that might best be called witnessing.

Recently with Carol Woods (West District Superintendent) we have gathered a small task group together to refocus us as a Conference on what is classically called evangelism.  This great word, “evangelism,” has gone from Jerusalem to Jericho and fallen among thieves.  The word literally means “tactics for sharing the good news.”  Regardless of where one stands on deeply divisive issues like same gender marriage, it is an irrefutable central fact that if we as a church are to survive we must recover an active ministry of evangelism.  This great task lies behind the scenes of much of our modern controversies, but its reality is irrefutable in a post-Christian America.

Behind the scenes of recovering evangelism and witness lies the even deeper theological issues of a robust doctrine of sin and the need for salvation and thus a recovery of a vibrant Christology.  Those are common themes to which I have returned time and time again in my blogging.  It is at our theological heart that the real crisis of Methodism and mainline Christianity lies.  More on this later.  For today, we need to embrace the threatening world of evangelistic witness — not for our sake, not for institutional self-preservation.  Such is a far too petty goal.  We need to recover evangelistic witness for the sake of a bruised and battered world, for the love of those lost in hopelessness, helplessness, and homelessness (both spiritually and physically)!

An Unfolding Work of the Holy Spirit

 

On returning home from the Council of Bishops week-long meeting in Oklahoma City, I find myself slowly getting back into the issues of ministry in our local setting.  Among the disagreements at the Council, the great sign of encouragement was our agreement around the importance of building vital congregations.  Here is a divinely ordered platform on which we can come together.

These musings led me back to an email report I received about a month ago.  I detour to set some context for the report.

Last Conference we made an unusual appointment of Pastor Denise Bell Blakely to Everman UMC as Associate Pastor for Mission, Community Development and Evangelism.  Rev. David Griffin is the senior pastor at Everman.  Everman is a community undergoing change.  Once a predominantly Anglo community, it now has a majority Hispanic population. Collectively both the congregation and the cabinet wondered how we could engage this new environment.  Already, Everman UMC was working on ministry with those attending school right by the church.  They were open to reaching out in a new and creative way.  So too was Pastor Griffin.  Enter Rev. Blakely who lives with a courageous sense of the Holy Spirit calling her.  (It is worth noting that Rev. Griffin is Anglo, Everman UMC is predominately Anglo, and Rev. Blakely is African-American.)  Through the combination of the a grant from the Texas Methodist Foundation (TMF), Conference mission support and the local church, together we stepped up to risk-taking mission and service.  Through a supportive church and senior pastor, a new and highly innovative mission work was begun.

After 3 ½ months on the job, Rev. Blakely filed a report which (edited for length) included the following:

  • “Developed English and Spanish Language handouts to the community of Everman and Forest Hill, containing information about Everman UMC, the Lord’s Prayer in English and in Spanish, weekly prayers for children, and the household for Victory in Christ, also in English and in Spanish.
  • Delivered the handouts in door hanger format and in person in the neighborhood surrounding Everman UMC.
  • Visitations at Hugley Senior Center and Communion Service at the Senior Activity Center
  • Home and hospital visitations with the Stephenson family.  Grief counseling for the family.
  • Assisted senior pastor at the Graveside Service for Beverly Stephenson.
  • Attended orientation at the Tarrant County Food Bank.  The orientation is mandatory for access to services at the Food Bank.
  • Developed volunteer handbook for “Hanging Out” that can crossover to all volunteer activities at Everman UMC.
  • Served as primary contact for all walk-in and phone inquiries pertaining to Hanging Out and other mission activities.
  • Attended the Opening Convocation Service for Everman ISD and met with the Superintendent of Everman ISD, the school board members, principals of the schools, Dr. Bean and some of the teachers of the school.  The purpose was to initiate conversation about the expectations and goals of Everman UMC and Everman ISD and how we can help each other achieve these goals.
  • Filled in for the Senior Pastor for three weeks while he was on vacation, carrying out the instructions of the Senior Pastor and mindful of the faithful representation of Jesus, and the United Methodist Church.
  • Began a ministry of grace, handing out bottles of water to those walking in the 100+ heat.  The bottles of water are labeled, “Courtesy of Everman UMC.”
  • Handing out blessing bags consisting of hygiene items and snacks to the homeless in Everman.

Rev. Blakely closed her unusual report with the following: “These are the projects in progress. At I-35 and Everman Parkway, working on developing communication with the prostitutes.  Still discovering Everman. Working with the Senior Pastor in planning a revival.  Working with the volunteers and preparing for Hanging Out 2014-2015.”

She added, “Everman UMC has had eight visitors to the church so far, I believe this is the fruit of prayer in action.  Please pray for the mission and my family, we need all the prayer we can get.”

Wow!  After all the effort and energy at the Council of Bishops, it is this kind ministry that inspires me and fills my soul!  I don’t know many pastors who would set up a dialog with prostitutes, be in conversation with school leaders, establish multi-lingual prayer meetings and plan a revival.  Most of us would get the last three – school, prayer, and revival.  It is the first one I choke on – a ministry with prostitutes.  I confess that I would be afraid to do so.  And yet, the more I think about, I do know someone else who established such a ministry.  His name is Jesus.  I can actually think of a few other pastors who have done so as well.  (Including a Presbyterian minister/missionary and his wife in Hong Kong back in 1968.)

We don’t know how this will come out.  This is work of the Holy Spirit unfolding in ways we do not understand and cannot control.  And yet there is a lesson and witness here for more than just Everman UMC.  The future of the larger United Methodist Church lives on in such Holy Spirit- led ministry.

In my reflection, it is the Lord who is calling us to courageous risk-taking mission and service, willing to evangelistically offer Christ to those most in need.  I want to publically thank the good people of Everman UMC and Pastors Griffin and Blakely.  I also want to be a part of a church that reaches out to those most in need – sharing in both (!!) Word and deed!

Human Sexuality Statement from the Council of Bishops

BishopCrest (4)The following statement was adopted unanimously by the Council of Bishops in the afternoon executive session on November 7, 2014:

As bishops of The United Methodist Church, our hearts break because of the divisions that exist within the church.  We have been in constant prayer and conversation and affirm our consecration vow “to guard the faith, to seek the unity and to exercise the discipline of the whole church.” We recognize that we are one church in a variety of contexts around the world and that bishops and the church are not of one mind about human sexuality. Despite our differences, we are united in our commitment to be in ministry for and with all people.  We are also united in our resolve to lead the church together to fulfill its mandate—to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. As we do so, we call on all United Methodists to pray for us and for one another.

 

Acts of Repentance, Signs of Hope

Thursday afternoon we gathered to engage in an intensive time of follow up to Acts of Repentance for the Treatment of Indigenous People (which was a commitment out of General Conference 2012). It is a massive understatement to assert that the United States’ history of treatment of Native Americans is rife with injustice. Growing up in Seminole, Oklahoma (which is near the headquarters of the Seminole tribe) my wife has a much deeper grasp of the history than I do. Originating in Florida, a significant number of Seminoles held out in the Everglades during the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and Seminole Wars of 1832; however, the majority marched the deadly trial of tears and settled in the Oklahoma territory. Last year as a part of our participation in the “Acts of Repentance,” CTCYM (Central Texas Conference Youth in Mission) worked in mission with churches of the Oklahoma Indian Mission Conference (OIMC).

In our “Acts of Repentance” we are working towards a new future of healed relationships that constitute honest confession of past moral failures and offer hope for a new future. We are witnesses and even at times participants to the victimized. For example the Sand Creek Massacre was led by a Methodist Minister (an elder in good standing!). It is a blight on our history. Today, issues still remain that cry out for holistic ministry — alcoholism, drug abuse, poverty and the like. Together we are called to be a part of a new day. I am grateful for the leadership of representatives of the OIMC for their thoughtful and challenging leadership.

The Council of Bishops’ common time in conjunction with the Connectional Table of the United Methodist Church has focused on what unites us. Our overarching engagement is on building vital congregations. A key learning is how the Four Areas of Focus are a reflection of Vital Congregations. Put differently, vital congregations engage in (1) creating new places for new people (through both! the transformation of existing congregations and the creation of new churches and faith communities), (2) leadership development (both lay and clergy), (3) ministry with the poor, and (4) the eradication of killer diseases worldwide (Imagine No Malaria, fighting HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis). These signature goals are the fruit of vital congregations and simultaneously they are formative of vital congregations. Vital congregations not only engage in the focus areas, they come about and grow through engagement of the focus areas. By focusing we more faithfully live our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

When we focus on vital congregations that are in ministry in these focus areas, we are united. A part of this great work of God calls us to come up with signature objectives — that is, defining, challenging, aiming points. A classic example of a signature goal is “Nothing But Nets” or “Imagine No Malaria.” Signature goals have a way of galvanizing the imagination and driving innovative new ministry in the area of the goals. They are not limiting but rather expansive.

Another sign of hope that the COB took part in with the Connectional Table was our vision for our worldwide church. In one sense, it is far easier to just be a national church (as in the Presbyterian or Lutheran Church in America). As a worldwide people of faith, we embody the global call land claim of the gospel of our Lord. Together we are stronger and more faithful. We have the opportunity to learn from each other in grace-filled ministry. As a Council of Bishops we have the responsibility for the initiation of “structures and strategies” for the sake of the worldwide mission of the church.

This, the worldwide nature of the church, is tricky work. Our various contexts differ widely! Imagine being a United Methodist Christian in Russia and the conflict with Ukraine erupts. The same bishop, Bishop Edward Khegay, is responsible for both countries, Russia and the Ukraine! Or reflect on the growing ministry taking place through Global Ministries in Vietnam. In each case the context is dramatically different from Central Texas. The great hope and promise is that together we are “transforming the world for Christ.” On a more practical level, many (most?!) of our congregations in Central Texas wrestle with this wonderful worldwide reality when they take part in a mission trip or support a missionary or pay Connectional Mission Giving (apportionments)!

Taken together we are living the faith in tremendous ways! We are, on a worldwide basis, “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

Life at the Council

The Council of Bishops (COB) meeting started early for me with a gathering of the Executive Committee of the COB.  Actual activity had begun the day before through my participation in a live web-cast presentation on the church’s response to the divisive issues of weddings for same-gender couples and ordination of those who are “avowed practicing homosexuals.”

In America same-gender issues dominate much of our conversation and energy.  The bishops of the church are very aware that these issues are potentially denomination splitting.  Every meeting has been greeted by protesters from a group called “Love Prevails.” (They advocate a change in church law to permit same gender marriages and ordination of gay and lesbian individuals.) We have been in deep and committed conversations (much of the conversations have been in Executive Session and are confidential) with each other on how to best lead the church around these issues. It is accurate to say that the Council reflects the larger church.  We are not of one mind.  Reflecting the larger UMC, we struggle with deep issues of faithfulness.

As we do I am struck again by what it means to be a worldwide church.  Other areas (most of Africa & parts of Europe and Asia) find the conversation very disturbing.  Our various contexts are quite different.  Taken together they challenge us to seek a way to live together that honors integrity, holds to unity and enables the greater mission we share to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

Our work is far wider than one issue.  We heard a tremendously encouraging report from Bishop Tom Bickerton on “Imagine No Malaria.”  The total raised to date has gone over $64.5 million.  We are in sight of the overall goal of $75 million.  It is difficult to understate how much good and how many lives have been saved through this great work of God.  Dr. Christopher Benn reported from the Global Fund (which is one of our international partnering agencies in the battle against killer diseases) that the global rate of death for children under 5 years of age dying from preventable diseases has dropped 41% since 1990. Those who served in Vietnam will remember the blight of malaria in that country.  Amazingly enough last year there were only 20 malaria deaths in the entire country.

There is much that remains to do.  The battle is not over, but we can say with confidence that the fight against malaria is being won.  I urge congregations and individuals in Central Texas to continue to support “Imagine No Malaria.”  It is the gift of life we can give again this Christmas!

Monday morning’s worship featured a great sermon by Bishop Mike McKee (Central Texas missionary to North Texas).  We have spent quality time in worship and small covenant groups for spiritual growth and discernment.  The focused question is one used commonly in historic Methodist Class Meetings:  “How is it with your soul?”

Dr. Kevin Watson, author of The Class Meeting: Reclaiming a Forgotten (and Essential) Small Group Experience, offered an insightful teaching on the importance of Holy Conferencing.  He challenged our tendency to abuse the term “holy conferencing.”  True holy conferencing according to Dr. Watson, can only be nurtured in an intimate small group where genuine care and spiritual accountability can take place.  It is not a term to be used (or rather misused) as a mantra for listening politely before you try to convince someone else they are wrong.

We also took part in the quadrennial sexual ethics training for bishops.  Just as this is required for every clergy person under appointment in a conference, so too it is required for bishops.

On a quite different tack, Bishop Greg Palmer (West Ohio) moved and I seconded a special proclamation by the Council of Bishops honoring Dr. Lyle Schaller.  Dr. Schaller was the great “guru” of church growth and leadership for decades.   He is the author of over 50 books with Abingdon Press (the United Methodist Publishing House).  He is now living with his wife of 68 years in a memory care unit in Oklahoma City.  Along with President and Publisher of the United Methodist Publishing House), Bishop John Hopkins and I had the privilege of presenting him with the proclamation.

Wednesday, the Council of Bishops will be in a joint meeting with the Connectional Table focusing on building Vital Congregations.  Thursday we will participate in important acts of repentance, learning and healing as we seek to learn from Native Americans who are a part of the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference.  This is a part of the continuation of our work of repentance for mistreatment of Native Americans.  Acts of repentance were begun at the Tampa General Conference of 2012.  Hopefully I will be able to offer a follow up blog on those two important issues.

On the Way to the Council

As I write this blog, I am sitting in a hotel room in Nashville, Tennessee, Wednesday October 29th.  We have just finished the annual fall meeting of the United Methodist Publishing House Board. (Cokesbury & Abingdon Press are two of the better known divisions.)  I have been privileged to serve on this Board for the past 10 years (four as a representative from the Southwest Texas Conference and six as a bishop representing the Council of Bishops (COB).

During those 10 years, we have lived through (and are continuing to live in!) a revolution in the publishing business.  The advent of new technology spearheaded by Amazon has transformed the publishing enterprise beyond previous recognition.  And yet, Amazon just posted the biggest loss in its history.  With the superb leadership of President and Publisher Neil Alexander we are sailing through storm tossed seas, battered but still afloat, and slicing through the waves.  (It is worth noting in this same time period, Borders has declared bankruptcy; Barnes & Noble is losing money and cutting back; Nazarene Press is closing; Augsburg (Lutheran) is in turmoil fighting a lawsuit for failure to honor its pension commitments.

We had a good meeting as we planned future strategy and made strategic decisions.  GROW, our children’s curriculum, is outstanding.  So too is the new adult Covenant Bible Study series.  UNDER WRAPS: The Gift We Never Expected, a new advent study, looks outstanding.  Revival: Faith as Wesley Lived It  is exciting in possibilities.

As I reflect on our time and work together, an old song by Bob Dylan comes back from my college days.  “The times they are a changin’”

Tonight, I will join a special gathering put together by the Path 1 (“New Places for New People” focus area) staff of the Discipling Ministries (which used to be known as The Board of Discipleship).  The event is a gathering of seminary professors of evangelism and new church start practitioners.  The hope is for an intensive interaction between the theology and practice of new church development.  One of the key areas of focus is on why “Wesleyan church planting matters.”

I will be offering an opening “theological reflection/devotion” (that is the actual title of my assignment) entitled “The Challenge of Why.”  Central Texas Conference members have heard a precursor of this extended work offered in a series of sermons at the 2012 Annual Conference.  Simply put, the challenge of “why” is to answer the question of “why bother being Christian or worship God by going to church.”

One shudders in recalling the casual comment of a church staff member to her pastor, “We’re Methodists; we can believe whatever we want, can’t we?”  No, we can’t!  Answering the “why” question necessitates recovery of a core orthodoxy at the heart of our teaching and preaching.  It is central to any faithful future for the Methodist movement in North America.

Thursday night I fly home and a brief part of Friday morning will be spent in the office.  We’ll drive to Oklahoma City Friday afternoon so I can take part in a rehearsal for Saturday’s Connectional Table Webcast event of a panel discussion of the bishops who wrote Finding Our Way.

The Council meeting starts Sunday afternoon with a traditional Memorial Service.  I hope to offer reflections on our gathering during the week.  In my devotional time I am reminded again of a song we sang at Taize, In The Lord I’ll be Ever Thankful.

In the Lord I’ll be ever thankful,
In The Lord I will rejoice!
Look to God, do not be afraid.
Lift up your voices, The Lord is near,
Lift up your voices, The Lord is near.

Church Typologies and Crucial Shifts

The great church leadership, administration and church growth guru of the late 20th century for mainline Protestantism was Dr. Lyle Schaller.  Among the many insightful concepts he popularized was the notion of church typologies.  Church typology is a way of understanding churches and common behavior found in similar-sized churches.  The Alban Institute, a highly respected think-tank for mainline Protestants, also offered valuable insight in why open country rural churches worshipping between 50 and 70 on an average Sunday would act much the same and why large downtown “First” churches confront similar challenges.  Both championed the notion that worship attendance was a key (if not “The key”) variable for helping congregations understand their internal dynamics.

I often use my own short-hand version of their deeper insights.  A simple way of thinking about churches based on size is through worship attendance.  (I hasten to add that there are many other factors such as urban, rural, county seat, suburban, etc.!)

Average Worship Attendance Typology
Less than 70 Family chapel
70 to 150 Small
150 to 300 Medium
300 to 750 Large
750 to 1800 Regional
1800+ Mega

There are interesting variations in this shorthand (and admittedly overly simplistic) way of viewing congregations.  For instance, a downtown first church will often have a regional characteristic even if its worship attendance is not around 750.  So too with the perceived leader in an urban ethnic community.  A county seat church will often be a large church even if its worship attendance puts it in the medium category.

There are two size subsets that are important to note:  Less than about 25 or 30 in average worship is a much more distinctive family chapel.  On the other end of the spectrum, at around 500 in average worship a large church starts to act and feel more like it is semi-regional.

There are some common touch points for United Methodist Churches worth noting:

  1. Most churches operate as one size smaller than they really are.  Thus, they tend to shrink to a smaller size just to fit the way they are operating!
  2. We (the UMC) have tended to staff for one size smaller then we are.  Over the last 10 years this has changed, and I see many churches staff bigger than they actually are!  This can hurt the importance of a shared lay ministry.  It is tricky and important to staff for growth without over-staffing.
  3. As church growth breaks into the next size category is much like going through the sound barrier.  Moving to a bigger size means engaging in church operations differently.  People unconsciously often resist such change.  It is not uncommon to see a pattern over a 20 or 30 year time period of a church that approaches a size and then falls back to the smaller size (especially among larger churches).  This is because it is difficult to change the way we consciously operate!  Changing to a larger size is a category shift and requires “doing church” differently.  A lot of congregational fights are really over system issues that have to do with size.
  4. Context – that is the ministry area, mission field, and congregational history – affect the way our “typology” interacts with our ministry, but no church is exempt from wrestling with the issues presented by a category shift!

I am headed out for three days in Nashville.  Two will be spent in the annual meeting of the United Methodist Publishing House Board, which it is my privilege to serve on (along with Dr. Eric McKinney from the Central Texas Conference).  The third day will be participating in and giving an address to a gathering of evangelism professors at various seminaries and a group of new church development pastors.  I’ll fly back in Thursday night and leave Friday for 8 days at the Fall Council of Bishops meeting held this session in Oklahoma City.  (The Council itself only meets for 5 days, but I am on the Executive Committee which adds a pre-meeting meeting, plus I am a part of a panel interview of those who co-authored the book Finding Our Way.)  I ask for your prayers for the Council of Bishops meeting.